The mighty Mekong covers more than 3,000 miles as it passes through six countries in Asia—from China to Vietnam—and provides the livelihood for almost 60 million people. Known as “Tonle Than” (Great Waters) in Cambodia, the Mekong takes on new life in these parts, where it flows in one direction in the wet season and the opposite direction in the dry season. One of our cruise specialists traveled to Cambodia to journey aboard the amazing Aqua Mekong is it cruised from Phnom Penh up towards Tonle Sap. Stunning temple complexes, wonderful river and biking excursions, and deliciously fresh cuisine on board made this trip an unforgettable experience.
I went in search of a new perspective of life on the Mekong in Cambodia and this cultural journey, Mekong Expedition Cruise, took me off the beaten path and far from the lines, crowds, and buses of city life.
After a long morning zipping through the busy streets of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, we reached our home for the week, the stunning Aqua Mekong. The ship has 20 deluxe cabins, each with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the river, spacious bathrooms with dual sinks, and walk-in showers with rainforest shower heads. Because the guest to staff ratio is one to one, our experience was incredible and the attention to detail was fantastic.
With 40 guests and 40 crew it felt more like a boutique hotel than a boat. The top deck was one of my favorite places to relax as the Aqua Mekong cruised along the river. The boat also has its own plunge pool and gym, so the options on board seemed endless.
We were visiting Cambodia during “Pchum Ben” (Ancestor’s Day), a 15-day religious festival that celebrates past relatives going back seven generations. One of our biking excursions led us to a beautiful temple where we gave offerings and participated in a ceremony. It was beautiful to be able to share this experience with the locals.
Life on a boat adds a whole new level of adventure, even from our cabins. Every morning we were greeted by gorgeous views and the rhythms of the river—fishing boats whizzing by, rolling clouds, and temples dotting the landscape. You could never get these views looking out the same hotel window.
Towns and villages along the Mekong offer so many unexpected surprises. One afternoon we hopped in a tuk tuk and zipped around Kampong Cham until we reached the ancient Angkor temple of Wat Nokor Bachey. It is actually a temple within a temple and is built using black sandstone rather than red sandstone typically used in other temples.
One morning, we visited a local English school where we read with the students, answered their many questions, and learned about the organization that supports schools throughout the region.
Cambodia’s mix of ancient temples and modern pagodas is the backdrop to everyday life. The temples of Angkor cover nearly 150 square miles and it was always a delightful surprise to see how many there were interspersed with the rest of the current city.
Besides cruising on the river, the favored way to explore the area is by bike. During one of our biking excursions through Khmer villages, we stopped for a quick snack and chat with locals.
But it’s always nice to come back to the Aqua Mekong—the perfect place to recharge between excursions.
Of course, the passing views from our room made it difficult to leave.
On this small boat we had the opportunity to get to know the excellent crew—most are locals that grew up along the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia with stories and insights to share. Here is one of our guides during our journey who illuminated this history and culture of the area.
Our kayaking excursion was an unexpected surprise. Aqua Mekong has their own kayaks on board and offer fun river excursions. We enjoyed some light afternoon rain while we were kayaking, and made our way back to the boat in time to enjoy the sunset.
On our last afternoon we hopped in the skiff for one last biking excursion before heading back to Phnom Penh. The people’s hospitality welcomed us wherever we were, and their smiles have stayed in my heart long after I returned.
From the moment I walked onboard the Aqua Mekong I knew it was going to be an experience like no other. From the enriching shore excursions and thought provoking afternoon lectures to the incredible cuisine and attention to detail, the crew exceeded my expectations. This was a truly memorable experience.
—Text and photos by WT Expedition Cruise specialist Denise Santos, Mekong Expedition Cruise.